We may know him best as the beloved be-sideburned frontman of Brit Pop legends Supergrass but recently Gaz Coombes has been striking out on his own and making not inconsiderable waves with his latest solo album ‘Matador’. In fact, as we went to print the wave turned tidal as it was announced that the album has been nominated for a coveted Mercury Prize. Ooooh… so what’s all the fuss about?
Well, firstly, it’s a big step away from the punchy Brit-rock of Supergrass. Over their 17 years and 6 studio albums together Supergrass honed their instantly recognisable sound and built a name for themselves as the cheeky chappy lads of 90’s Brit Pop with their hits such as ‘Caught by the Fuzz’, ‘Sun Hits the Sky’ and ‘Pumping on Your Stereo’. They worked hard, they played hard and ultimately the band paid the price when they announced their split in early 2010. But we’ve all grown up a bit since then. Well, Gaz Coombes certainly has and ‘Matador’ is a perfect example of a musician facing up to the self-doubt, personal loss and even the drug-induced tour psychosis of his past.
"There’s definitely a tenderness, darkness and uncertainty to the songs,” Gaz says with a smile. "But I think there’s a resilience and a confidence about being vulnerable, even though that sounds contradictory.” It’s a story told many times before as artists separate from the confines of their band to express their own individual journey through their solo work. But ‘Matador’ is not only a step away from the high-spirited lyrical content of the Supergrass days, it also comes with a radical new musical backdrop, which Gaz first hinted at on his 2012 solo debut ‘Here Come The Bombs’. "That record was all about creating some distance from Supergrass in how I approached writing and recording,” he says. "In a way I think I forced the issue at times and put too many ideas on there; I guess that’s partly the nature of a first album… This time around I was more relaxed, more direct in my approach – but at the same time I still didn’t want the record to sound like anything I’d done before.” And it really doesn’t. It’s softer; it takes a massive step away from rock towards electronica and is reminiscent of bands like The Orb. Teaser track ‘Buffalo’ was the first release from the album and with its soaring soundscape it perfectly encapsulates the shift in Gaz’s writing and performance style. "It was a compliment when people said they didn’t think it was me,” he says with a smile. "It’s basically just Mellotron, drums and piano, but still with a really epic sound. That was what I was looking for; to simplify the music but still have these big impact moments.”
Playing all the instruments himself, Gaz utilises an arsenal of analogue synthesizers he’s amassed over the years, writing instinctively and placing emotional honesty over technical perfection. "It was a really exciting and liberating way of working,” he explains. "Lyrically I wanted to keep it very raw and emotive and the music reflects that. I’d start with a loop or a little riff then use this little blue box I’ve got to take it in various directions –whether it was using different time signatures, adding orchestral samples or speeding songs up and slowing them down. It might sound arrogant, but I see it as similar to the way you create art - you have to feel it on the spot.”
There’s a sense of space which permeates the entire album. From the astral gorgeousness of ‘The Girl Who Fell To Earth’ to the dream-like cadences of ‘Oscillate’, it’s the sound of a songwriter melting musical boundaries. Lyrically, Gaz removes himself completely from the comfort zone of pop, tackling subjects as tender as the druggy darkness which descended on Supergrass (summed up in the chorus of ‘Detroit’: "The poison, the powder and the lies/Better jump right in ‘cos the water’s fine”) it’s both intimate and unflinchingly honest. At its heart, however, there’s a romantic core that binds Matador’s songs together, most evident in the exquisite ‘Seven Walls’. "I wrote that with my wife,” says Gaz. "It’s a musical love story about the nights we’d have together in Oxford years ago, when we’d sit in the back of the car park having a joint and a couple of beers. Nothing special on the face of it, but it’s about the magic in those tender moments.”
We get the feeling that ‘Matador’ is all about creating those tender moments for Gaz. It’s the noise of an artist opening themselves up and moving on and we can see exactly why it’s in that list of Albums of the Year. "There’s this disposable vibe around music at the moment which is odd, because it’s so obviously central to most people’s lives,” says Gaz in conclusion. "Life is full of moments of fear, loss and longing, but it’s how you get through those things and triumph over them which define you. But there’s as much light as there is dark on this record; there’s beauty in both of those states and that has always intrigued me.”
Words: Zan Lawther